Jonathan Toews opens up about health issues, future: ‘Could be my last few weeks in Chicago’
Toews returned to Blackhawks morning skate Tuesday — two months to the day since his last game — and will try to make a few appearances before the season ends April 13. But he has battled through immense pain and fatigue to get to this point.
From afar, Jonathan Toews looked like Jonathan Toews during Blackhawks morning skate Tuesday.
The Hawks captain skated and shot the puck with his typical fluidity and power. He jokingly celebrated goals into empty nets, briefly talked strategy with Reese Johnson and roughhoused Seth Jones.
But Toews, in reality, has not felt like himself.
Tuesday marked exactly two months since his last Hawks appearance Jan. 28. He stepped away from the team shortly thereafter due to a resurgence of symptoms from chronic immune response syndrome and long COVID.
And since then, he has grappled with many mental and physical issues, including his extremely murky hockey future.
“It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks in Chicago as a Blackhawk,” Toews admitted Tuesday.
Indeed, his contract will expire in July and has no idea what he’ll be capable of doing beyond that point. He has thus decided to try his best to play at least a few times in the Hawks’ eight remaining games leading up to their April 13 season finale.
He’ll need some time to improve his conditioning, and he warned fans not to “expect much” when he does return. But when Toews is determined to do something, history has proven it unwise to bet against him.
“[It’s] important for me to just go out there, enjoy the game, soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be a part of here in Chicago — and show my appreciation to the fans, as well,” he said.
Up until a few weeks ago, however, Toews was strongly considering sitting out of the rest of the season.
That discouragement stemmed from how bad things got in January, when his steady improvement over the past two years — since sitting out the entire 2021 season — suddenly reversed course into an abrupt and alarming decline.
He felt exhausted during the Hawks’ stretch of six games (including five on the road) in the last 10 days before the All-Star break. His body was inflamed. He felt “miserable.” He “couldn’t move on the ice” and lacked the motivation to “roll out of bed.”
“When day after day you’re just pushing through pain, it’s just like, ‘To what end?’” he said. “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup...that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”
“The decision was, ‘I’ve got to get myself right, or the decision to not continue to play is probably going to be made for me.”
Yet, all the while, it was difficult to explain or understand why.
“It’s not like a knee injury or shoulder injury where you lay under an MRI and your proof is right there,” he said. “Even for me, it has been really challenging at times to figure out what’s going on.”
Thankfully, Toews’ two months away from hockey at least halted his symptoms’ downward spiral. After skating Tuesday, he looked very red but observed “encouraging” progress.
He has made his mind up about his long-term objective, too. It will simply take time to ascertain what will make that objective viable.
“I’m committed to get back to a place where...[I have the] energy to not only go out there and play the game at the level I know that I can, but also have the energy left over to enjoy life and enjoy my time with my teammates, whether it’s going to dinners or just little things like that,” he said.
“All that stuff has been nonexistent. [I] really just go home, lay there, try to recover and get ready for the next day. That’s all it has really been. So we’ll see how things play out.”
Toews has received support and advice for his long COVID struggles from fellow NHL veteran forward Brandon Sutter.
Sutter, 34, hasn’t played in almost two years since developing long COVID in summer 2021, a few months after he was infected during a Canucks outbreak in the no-fans season that Toews skipped. Sutter recently told Sportsnet he’s finally regaining his ability to work out and do everyday chores and can “see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Toews said he and Sutter recently discovered they’ve “dealt with a lot of the same [or] similar symptoms.” They had some helpful conversations about reducing stress on the body.
Toews’ two-month absence meant he wasn’t around to comment on the Hawks’ earth-shaking Patrick Kane trade — until Tuesday.
“I was definitely shocked,” Toews said. “The possibility was there for a while, but it’s like, ‘Ah, it’s not actually going to happen.’
“All of a sudden, you see him in a New York Rangers jersey. It kind of looks good on him, to be honest with you. I hate to say that. But [I’m] just happy to see him enjoying himself and playing with some really good players.”
Toews said he and Kane have been texting back and forth and he’s excited to watch Kane “play some meaningful games in the playoffs” again. But “it feels a lot different” for Toews, however, to reenter the Hawks’ locker room and not see No. 88 anywhere.
As far as Kane goes, he entered Tuesday with a respectable eight points in 12 games since the trade, during which the Rangers have gone 8-3-1.